Color me extremely curious when it comes to Emma Hayes’ pending tenure as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. She won’t take the helm until spring, when her season with Chelsea FC has concluded. Still, the timing of her hire drips with big-picture import, none of which has anything to do with pay equity (though it IS diverting to note that, because she will make exactly the same as her USMNT counterpart, we ‘ve learned that $475,000 in the women’s coaching market will deliver the most sought-after manager in the game, while all it delivers on the men’s side is Gregg Berhalter 2.0).
Even with her delayed arrival, Hayes will have three full years with the USWNT prior to the next Women’s World Cup; Twila Kilgore will continue in her role as interim manager and eventually join Hayes’ staff as a full-time assistant. This lead time allows the new gaffer plenty of time and opportunity to vet and experiment with an entirely new, likely far younger crop of players. This process is already underway: A very young USWNT roster devoid of established stars has been gathered for the Dec. 2 friendly with China.
These debuts were more or less expected; there are no snubs so early in a Women’s World Cup cycle, so close after a long NWSL season has been completed. Yet I can’t wait to see what Hayes makes of that young crop, how USWNT Old Girls deal with this fresh set of European eyes, and how willingly they ultimately pass the torch — perhaps this summer, ahead of the Olympics, when rosters will matter. As an American soccer partisan, I’m rooting for all of them. But I expect at least as much tactical and personnel drama as the unfortunate Vlatko Andonovski experienced Down Under last summer.
Hayes was hired immediately upon conclusion of the National Women’s Soccer League season. Some 850,000 folks tuned into CBS on Nov. 11, to watch the match live, in prime time (917,000 tuned into last year’s final, for the record). In the flush of that competitive denouement, amid fond farewells for Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, NWSL announced a massive new $240 million TV deal.
Yet I’m betting Hayes herself was more interested in the quality and style of play on display in the final. As with the USWNT’s performance in Australia and New Zealand during last summer’s WWC, the NWSL title match underlined what a massive task Hayes has ahead of her.
In short, U.S. professional club soccer and the USWNT have clearly fallen behind their European rivals. The grimly direct, kick-and-run tactics on offer Nov. 11 made this assessment plain to see. The technical quality of both teams paled beside those on display atop of the English, French and Spanish leagues. There was a time when professional women’s soccer in the United States represented the best club futbol on the planet. In fact, Hayes coached here during that heyday; she lead the Chicago Red Stars from 2008 to 2010, in Women’s Professional Soccer — the league the NWSL replaced. She served as technical director at another WPS franchise, the Western New York Flash, in 2011.
The WPS, like its predecessor the W-League, did not survive — but their respective failures, as league enterprises, had nothing to do with the quality of play. In that respect, the U.S. game stood alone at the technical apex, and Europeans flocked here to partake of it. Today, as the NWSL would appear poised to scale new business heights, that critical mass of superior American talent simply does not exist.
Why? If Emma Hayes were to address this question, she would answer in a single word: Academies. In 2011, no professional women’s clubs maintained them for young players. Today, every European club worth a damn does; that’s the reason Euro leagues are so vastly improved. It took quite a while for the Old World futbol establishment to buy into the women’s game. But once it did, things moved quickly. The infrastructure and coaching was already in place and, let’s face it: This is what European clubs do best. They find and nurture young talent. By 2019, we could see this improvement in national sides like England, France, Spain and especially Holland. In Australia, last summer, all four of those teams had caught and passed their North American rivals.
Soccer’s “academy” system is just another name for professionalized coaching and training mechanisms. Here in the U.S., we should know and appreciate how this works: Major League Baseball has relied such a system since Branch Rickey built the first “farm” system, for the St. Louis Cardinals, in the 1920s. Today, even prized collegiate products go there to get trained up. The coaching young men receive at most D1 football and basketball programs is similarly professionalized.
Today, only a few D1 women’s soccer programs, led by the University of North Carolina, supply truly useful professionals directly to the NWSL and USWNT. This method of turning out soccer players remains sustainable, but it cannot ultimately compete with proven academy systems/methods attached to rich clubs in Europe. The players themselves already understand this reality: Precocious talents today — young women like Alyssa Thompson — don’t bother with college soccer. Increasingly, they go straight to the NWSL from high school, from their club teams.
The U.S. Men’s National Team provides another useful comp: Today, it is stocked with more technically sophisticated players than ever before, precisely because elite American men routinely bypass college for academy systems — in Europe, but also in Major League Soccer, where each and every team supports a youth academy. Often more than one.
That is the answer for the women’s game here: NWSL clubs need their own academies. Unfortunately, most clubs cannot yet afford them. Only five clubs — OL Reign, NC Courage, Portland Thorns, Racing Louisville and Houston Dash — maintain them today. In 2020, there were none at all. Euros will enjoy a huge developmental and technical advantage until such time that all of NWSL put this talent-development infrastructure in place.
This is the thorny situation into which Emma Hayes has walked.
This was, in fact, the identical situation into which former coach Vlatko Andonovski walked. It’s tempting to focus on the elimination match the U.S. played in Australia last summer, against the Swedes. Yet the USWNT actually played its best game of the tournament in the round of 16. Andonovski’s side generated way more scoring chances during open play; the Yanks were unlucky not to advance.
Yet Sweden no longer represents the cream of the European crop. It actually plays a very direct style, one similar to the Americans’. The U.S. encounter with Holland was more instructive: In that group stage match, the Dutch completely outclassed the USWNT technically. They played a very sophisticated brand of soccer compared to our own, very direct brand. Of course, the Netherlands were World Cup finalists in 2019. Not a huge shocker to see them fare so well. But Portugal? Ranked 21 in the world and playing its first World Cup? That match, the final group fixture, proved truly sobering. If soccer-savvy aliens landed at that stadium and were asked which team was the best in the world, they would have chosen the team in red and green. Not just by virtue of the result but based on the style and technical cohesion of the two sides.
Those 90 minutes best illustrated the change taking place in the women’s game right now.
The 2023 NWSL final merely punctuated massive scale of that change, so far as Emma Hayes is concerned.
Then there are the interpersonal intangibles. In the national team context, any changing of the guard can be difficult; carping at younger generations from sidelines, from studio desks and social media feeds, is de rigueur. It’s what former players DO these days. The World Cup showed how sticky this can be, what with former stars like Carli Lloyd, Christine Press and Brandi Chastain forming a chorus of very disappointed elder stateswomen. When a team like the USWNT simply reloads, as it has done several times since 1999, no problem.
When someone like Hayes has been brought in to overhaul a substandard product, and she’s obliged to do it with young players who aren’t technically up to snuff, expect fireworks.
The catch here is significant: The U.S. Soccer Federation and its Women’s National Team program have very little to do with this technical dynamic, no matter who leads the USWNT. In world soccer, clubs create talent; they crowd-source it for a country, not the federation. And so, come 2024, I would pre-warn American fans to cut Hayes some slack. Indeed, I would defy anyone finding fault with the new USWNT coach to point out to me who exactly her predecessor should have played instead, or how he might have arranged them differently, to have better competed with the 5 midfielders from Holland, or the 5 from Portugal, who consistently passed rings around our own midfield Down Under.
This is the hornet’s nest awaiting Emma Hayes in May 2024, whereupon she will have four matches — two in June and two in July — to prepare the USWNT for the 2024 summer Olympic Games in Paris. Good luck to her. If she can deliver the goods there, she will have earned that money.